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Needed department?

EVERY OTHER YEAR, WHEN the General Assembly meets, legislation is proposed to create an Arkansas Department of Agriculture.

This year we have SB448, which would create an Agriculture Department that would have a wide variety of farmers making up more than half of its board.

With Arkansas and Rhode Island the only states without an agriculture department, the proposal makes sense.

The dispute in the past has been between the overwhelmingly powerful and conservative voice of the Arkansas Farm Bureau, which has said an ag department isn't needed, and a conglomeration of various environmental, labor and groups mostly aligned with what's perceived to be liberal causes who think we do. The lone exception was Gov. Mike Huckabee's ill-fated plan to streamline state government that also called for an agriculture department to bring various existing boards and commissions under a single roof.

The year's effort is being pushed by the Arkansas Citizens First Congress, a coalition of 50-plus grassroots community groups from around the state.

While many of the reasons the group says the state needs an agriculture department appear valid, perhaps the best reason for saying no is the fact that Arkansas farmers have done quite well without another level of bureaucracy.

Supporters say that Arkansas has one of the nation's largest agricultural economies, accounting for $5.2 billion in yearly sales, one-fifth of the state's economy and nearly a quarter of all Arkansas jobs. Yes, agriculture is that important.

Those backing the move say SB448 is needed to help develop, promote and diversify the state's farm and rural economy, something they say our neighboring states do. SB448 also would create a centralized point of agricultural information for out-of-state and international buyers and investors, who currently have no obvious point of contact to assist them in making connections with Arkansas' farmers.

No one is developing comprehensive agriculture policy for Arkansas, they say. Services are left to private individuals, companies and organizations. (And that's a bad thing?)

SB448 creates a board for the proposed agriculture department that includes 20 members, at least 11 of whom must be practicing farmers, appointed by the governor.

Yet the Farm Bureau, which regularly polls its 235,000-plus member families to see if they think an agriculture department is needed, has consistently found the answer to be no.

We're curious as to what the millions of Farm Bureau members in the 48 states with agriculture department think of those bureaucracies. Are there advantages in having an agriculture department? Possibly. A study of states with them is needed to see if there's a financial impact they're getting that Arkansas isn't. So far, all we've seen is conjecture with no supporting evidence. Before creating more bureaucracy, we should be asking more questions.
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Title Annotation:Editorial
Publication:Arkansas Business
Geographic Code:1U7AR
Date:Mar 7, 2005
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